James Currie reviews the achievements of Scotland's largest regional council, which is to be disbanded

just as it reaches its coming-of-age party

THE candles on the birthday cake will be snuffed out on April 1. It is then - and somehow the date seems appropriate - that Strathclyde Regional Council, which 21 years ago replaced the six councils of Glasgow, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and parts of Argyll and Stirlingshire, ceases to exist.

What was originally formed to maximise the resources of the area and increase its efficiency at a time when six was deemed to be five too many, will now be broken up into twelve pieces, each with fairly common goals, but using different methods by which to attain them.

It won't be easy. It certainly wasn't for Strathclyde Regional Council in 1975, but even its fiercest critics had to concede, however grudgingly, that its remarkable ability to organise itself and get up and running in next to no time was impressive.

Naturally there were failures, most notably the attempt to get the population to think region rather than county. Exhortations to include the word Strathclyde in personal addresses fell on deaf ears. To this day I have never received a letter placing me anywhere other than Argyll. Similarly my friends and relations continued to live happily in Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, the regional umbrella always acknowledged, but never in writing. We quickly became aware of the changes courtesy of a proliferation of blue and yellow council vehicles which seemed to appear almost overnight, as did the new signs outside our schools, health centres and social work departments.

The original driving forces behind Strathclyde regional policy, convener Geoff Shaw and council leader Dick Stewart, quickly attained the type of public prominence few Scottish MPs of the time could claim. It seemed that not just their deeds, but every thought or pronouncement was noted, debated and paraded for public inspection in the media. Strathclyde Regional Council had become a very high-profile organisation and would remain so over the next two decades.

So how did our lives change during this time - and were the changes for the better? As always the arguments will rage on, but eventually history will decide.

Initially, the fledgling council had to address major problems. In an area encompassing so many disparate communities and cultures the first priority was to ensure an even spread of resources, increasing the number of teachers and improving social services in places where inequalities were identified.

As quickly as 1976 a report appeared which highlighted present and future problems associated with the loss of jobs, urban deprivation and a worrying population drift. Plans to concentrate resources in priority areas were accepted and 45 of them identified. Staff who had been involved in the aborted Stonehouse New Town project were transferred to the newly formed Scottish Development Agency, where they applied their skills to setting up the first of many ambitious programmes, the Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal project. A European first, this transformed an area of the city that had been in decline for many years, thus encouraging private housing development, greater inward investment and a wider mix of population.

With the pace of change accelerating, an open area of land adjoining the Clyde between Hamilton and Motherwell was developed and became Strathclyde Park, now one of Europe's best outdoor leisure facilities and one which attracts in excess of six million visitors each year.

Elsewhere, significant shifts were taking place in education, with the provision of an improved service to severely and profoundly handicapped pupils, opening up the system to adults who were invited back to school to take SCE grades - 84,000 have now done so - and the formation of the Strathclyde Schools Symphony Orchestra.

The pool of teachers was strengthened in 1979 when 30 US teachers were recruited, and the following year the Ethnic Minorities Scheme, set up with the help of Urban Programme funding, employed 50 teachers and support staff.

By the start of the next decade, the Strathclyde Employment Grants Scheme was launched, a project which over the years has attracted some #18m of European funding and helped create around 35,000 jobs.

An agreement with the SDA involved the allocation of #30m to ease some of the economic problems of Coatbridge, Motherwell and Kilmarnock - the first part of a massive #300m proposal to help areas hardest hit by the economic depression.

More investment in roads, lighting, bridges and piers throughout the region created or maintained another 5000 jobs.

All of these schemes attracted a great deal of media attention, but perhaps the council's smaller endeavours in social welfare and education - which had by now become an ongoing process - didn't receive the credit they deserved.

There were initiatives to help disadvantaged children in the region by pooling the resources of different agencies, recommendations for a charter of rights for children in care, new centres opened for adults with learning difficulties and an agreement with Scottish Ballet about the formation of the Dance School of Scotland, established in Knightswood Secondary School.

Scotland's heritage was acknowledged too, through the opening of the first Gaelic unit in the Sir John Maxwell Primary School, this being augmented by a language teaching scheme for primary schools piloted in 1989 in preparation for the Single European Market.

This is just to skim the surface. To chronicle every achievement of the 21 years of Strathclyde Regional Council would take much more space than we have available in this feature.

In his outgoing report, Robert Gould, leader of the council, said: ``In spite of the requirement to contain expenditure within tight statutory limits throughout most of its life, this council has maintained its commitment to the aims which are expressed in the Corporate Strategy, (contained in the report), in other policy statements covering social and economic development, planning, transportation and in departmental service plans.''

The evidence, he concluded, is there for those who are willing to judge it fairly. Strathclyde has served the people of this region well, he added.

Suffice to say, the new councils waiting in the wings have a great deal to live up to, but the hope is that, by utilising the expertise of the old regional council staff and both completing existing plans while initiating new projects, the people of Strathclyde will continue to enjoy an extraordinary standard of public service.

The foundations are in place. The hope now is that the building work will continue to make satisfactory progress.